How do you view your mind and your body? Are they separate things, with the mind in charge of everything? Or is the body the one in charge? Or is it a collaboration? Does it matter?
It’s common to consider the mind as an entity that is somehow controlling the body and all of its functions. It’s a very seductive idea, which is frequently depicted in films as an alien sitting behind a series of levers. This is what springs to my mind as I thoroughly enjoyed Men In Black (1997) I also really enjoyed Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) where the five primary emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anxiety, Anger, and Disgust) were personified and seemingly in charge of the actions of Riley (their host). Its a fabulous film and really worth watching.
This view of the mind being in charge has the effect that the mind (brain) is somehow superior to the body. In the West, we have a culture that idolises the mind over the body. We view intellectual careers as better than physical (except sport), we talk about the brain as being the “Higher Functions”. Yes, the brain is an incredible organ that we can not live without, but it can suffer and cope with so much and still function and change and adapt. I had a brief look at that in this blog I wrote after reading “The brain that changes itself” .
The brain does take up about about twenty percent of the energy the body consumes, and we will die within minutes if the brain doesn’t get oxygen via the blood supply. The body provides all of this for the brain as it needs the brain to co-ordinate hormonal releases, and many subconsicous autonomic actions.
In contrast the body is then seen as this disgusting meat sack or automaton that carries us around like the robot in Men in Black. It’s where the gross stuff (like digestion and reproduction and waste removal occurs). So therefore it is inferior to the almighty brain. However, they co-exist dependent on each other: the body needs the mind/brain to interpret the information, and create intention, but the mind/brain needs the body to carry it to food stuffs, consume and digest food stuffs, deliver energy and oxygen to and take waste products from it. One of my favourite facebook memes is:
“The brain is the most important organ in the body, according to the brain.”
I frequently come across people’s unconscious idea that the mind is superior to the body in my clinic, and I do remember a new client, who came to see me for a Myofascial Release treatment, saying “I’ve spent the last three years working on sorting my mind out, now it’s time for the body to have a go”. We started working on the body, and I do remember that they were surprised that things still came up. Which I know is a natural and normal part of being alive.
In yoga philosophy, the mind is supreme and in control of the body. The mind needs to be disciplined and rigid in its control. Strengthening the mind is what the practice of the physical postures (asanas), breath work (pranayama) and meditation practises are for: tiring the body, building energy and then achieving supreme quietening of the mind in Nirvana. This ultimate state is when the Self (the element of the individual) can (re)join with the Universe and dissolve the sense of separation of the “I” (atman) and “Universe” (Atman). Essentially an individual is just a representation of the larger whole of the Universe, in much the same way we are all part of the larger ecosystem of the world. The Atman is as much an energetic element that includes all animals, vegetables and minerals in the whole universe. But we need to remember that this state of Nirvana is a transitory state, but we can’t remain forever in this state as our body needs nourishment.
The whole idea of Mediation is to bring the mind under control from some untamed state and when we do that we achieve some goal. This is through giving the mind a particular focus that stops it rushing around like a mad thing (sometimes referred to as the monkey mind.). I have just been taking part in a course on Reiki and Meditation run by Dr Karen Janes (Natural Healing Energy) and Tiffany Schnieder, PhD (Healing for people) and their view is that Meditation for balance is about slowing the mind down to bring it into energetic balance with the body, and Reiki is for providing a remedy for the body and aura to the daily wear and tear of living. I am sure that I will revisit this shortly, and start to discuss the Reiki side of my practice, but back to the the Yoga Philosophy.
Coming back to the idea that the mind is superior, in the Katha Upanishad we get the concept of the Charioteer:
Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as
The charioteer, and the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are horses;
Selfish desires are the roads they travel.
When the Self is confused with the body,
Mind, and senses, they point out, he seems
To enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.
Katha Upanishad (trans E. Easawaran)
– Part 1, Section 3, verses 3-4
On reading this, I can see where they are coming from, but one of my responses to this is that the senses themselves are actually passive: they respond to the light-waves that land on the retina, the sound-waves that reach the eardrum, the scent molecules that land on the olfactory receptors in the nose, the molecules on the tongue’s taste buds, or the pressure on the skin. That event is sent as information to the brain, which interprets that to be the sensual stimulus. Therefore it is the driver (the mind/intellect) that gets caught up in the distractions, not the horses (body/sensors). The horses are then being blamed for the poor focus of the driver, which could be a sign that the brain is diverting attention away from itself. This view only discusses the main senses, but we should remember that there are the proprioceptive and interoceptive senses that tell us about the inner organisation of the body, which I know are a more modern concept than that described here. They are also elements that we feel we need to control and are often the aspects of self denial that aesthetics focus on.
This in itself is a huge subject and I’m trying (as usual) to cover it briefly. But this shows that for a long while the body has been considered as a lesser thing than the mind.
Descartes and Dualism
Rene Descartes was a French Philosopher who lived between 1596 and 1650. He has had a profound effect on modern science and medicine with his concept of dualism. That the mind and body are two things. He is also most famous for the line “Cogito ergo sum” which translates as “I think therefore I am”.
I will admit that I have not studied Descartes in any great depth, and Antonio Di Massio’s book “Descartes Error” is sitting on my shelf and waiting to be read. So including this here is a bit naughty of me, but his work has been a huge influence on Western Science. He is behind the Cartesian Branch of Mathematics as well as contributing to understanding of the human body. He is also a major influence on Scientific research by observation of events.
It has been said that Descartes’ separation of the mind from the body was partly a response to the society and culture that he was living in. It was also a practicality when he wanted to study the human form in a world where the Catholic Church was supreme. There was, apparently, an agreement made between Descartes and the Catholic Church that he could conduct anatomical dissections as long as he made no attempt to influence or identify the Soul, as that was the realm of the Church. Is there a difference between the Soul and the mind? I can see why he then separated the two in his approach so he could say: this mind bit I will ultimately leave to the Church.
He was also studying the dead, which is still true for anatomists to this day. Yes, we have wonderful imaging tools such as MRIs that I’m sure he would have loved using. But to this day a significant amount of scientific research on humans is done on cadavers (dead bodies) and is called “in vitro” (as opposed to “in vivo” which is on living creatures). Doing a substantial amount of research on cadavers is natural: it is rightly illegal to dissect a living person in the way that anatomists do. However, the vitality of the living is absent from the body and it does behave differently. I have had the great honour of taking part in a human cadaveric dissection and the soft tissue definitely did not feel like that of a living person.
Descartes separation of mind and body has also had the impact that Scientific Studies are always looking to remove the Subjective (the opinions of the individuals) from the Objective (identifiable and measurable things) in the way that they do things. Yes, it is important to understand the role of the mind (at some point I will write a bit more about the Placebo effect) in treatments and approaches that involve us as humans. This standardisation of experiements can at times have unintended effects: many research studies are done on men as their hormones do not vary over a four week period. So we end up with a gender bias. The example I can think of with this is the work of Hans Selye, who came up with the idea of stress: he specifically chose men as they were more straightforward to study.
Whilst I really do applaud the rise of Evidence Based Medicine in weeding out the charlatans and quackery, sometimes it feels like the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. We can sometimes forget that the mind places a huge role in us and how we respond to any interactions with our bodies. Yes, I really must write about the Placebo effect.
I also have the duty to work within my training and teaching: I am a bodyworker and not a psychologist/psychiatrist/counsellor and so I can only allow people to have emotional responses to any treatments in a safe space and suggest that the clients gain support from someone who is trained to work with the mind. However, I believe that the mind and body can fully process things when both are brought into play.
Intertwined mind and body
However, as I’m sure you’re aware, the mind and body are completely intertwined. And really can’t be separated from each other, unless it is as an unconscious body or a cadaver. During an operation when general anaesthetic is administered the brain is “switched” off and many bodily functions continue on their own (e.g. heart beat) and some need to be supported (such as breathing). Many of these are automatic processes and we can not consciously control them (suh as the heart beat, or hormone release). Other processes are completely under our control (voluntary movements like moving our limbs), whilst others we can choose to control or not (such as breathing).
The body is constantly sending information to the brain. The sensory nervous system is picking up information about what condition it is in, what hormones are coursing through the body, whether the body needs hydration or nourishment, do we need to sleep. The brain responds to this and coordinates the responses as necessary.
Somewhere we have the ability to separate something that watches and can make a decision about “not now” or “this is preferred” and this grows to become our mind, the thing that stores our historical information (I like chocolate, but I don’t like orange flavoured chocolate) that colours our waking moments, and seems to be behind our oddities of our sleeping dreams. This is the brain and it’s wonderful, amazing complexity of relational memory and fact retention.
So going back to the client who had “done the brain work” now was the time for “the body work”, they discovered that the body had information that triggered a response in the brain that had not been addressed by the “brain work”, they were in a place in which to gain advice and insight into the thoughts that the bodily sensations brought up.
However, the brain is limited in that ultimately it is only reactive to the environment we live in. It needs the input of information from the senses to be able to function in the world. Yes, it can plan what we do in the world, but throughout completing that action we are then responding to what we discover about our immediate environment.
The brain doesn’t actually control each and every muscle as we complete a task: it sets the intention and the body has a learnt series of motions to achieve them. For example, we decide we are thirsty and that we can have a glass of water, which we pick up and bring to our mouths. Our brain has received information via the interoceptive sense that we need more water. The mind initiates the hand reaching for the glass, following the pattern that has worked before, using the proprioceptive sense to co-ordinate the general muscular effort to grasp and lift the glass full of water and then again to bring that to our lips. It really is incredible when you think about it, but really all the mind is concerned about is the positioning of the hand the rest organises itself and will adapt around previous history of injury or mishap.
There has been talk over the last few years of doctors completing a complete brain transplant, which I find fascinating and horrifying in equal measures. I can’t help wondering what would happen to the brain as it is suddenly receiving information that comes from a completely different body: the hormones, the different arrangement of the body parts. I can only assume it would struggle as it worked these things out.
Thank you for reading through all of this, and I hope it makes sense. One of these days I’ll stop biting off large subjects to write about.
Easawaran, Eknath (2007)”The Upanishads: Introduced & Translated by Eknath Easawarn (2nd Edition)” Nilgiri Press.